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Friday, February 8, 2013

Rebel Yell! A Southern Thanksgiving

With last Thanksgiving starting it’s gradual fade from memory, I am reminded of an occasion 40 years ago when I had a most unusual celebration of the holiday. All stories have a beginning and this one most certainly did:  it began in high school.

Throughout my growing years, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, without even blinking, I’d answer “An actress.”  No…not a movie star, though I did want to work in movies, but a working actress with meaty roles. From the time I was at my youngest and through my public school education, I was in every single play that every class/school I attended held. I was always a lead player, and often as not, the ‘star.’ My family humored me and my Mom would even tell me stories about her own participation in play-readings and speech meets in her rural Maine school. I never once had a single person, child or adult, snicker, laugh at or question my  vocational aspiration. Quite the opposite, in fact: most adults—even teachers-- encouraged me to go for it.

All of this was wonderful, but fast-forward to 1969. I was going to turn 15 that year. I’d hung out with a friend over the summer who was volunteering at our town’s hospital, New Britain General. I’d started to volunteer with her, not for altruistic reasons, but because there were cute orderlies working there!

My Mom was thrilled. Truth be told, she was starting to get nervous about the fact that I was 15 and was still planning to move to Hollywood to become an actress. She’d even had a serious discussion with me:

Mom: “Karen (she always called me Karen because that’s my real name), I’m worried about you and this acting thing. Haven’t you read “Valley of theDolls?”

Me: “No, Mom. You wouldn’t let me. You said it was a dirty book. “

Mom: “See?!!”

My Mom would have been so disappointed to know that my reasons for volunteering were not at all aimed toward the greater good of mankind…and I didn’t tell her. It was nice to have her approval. My Mom would have supported me no matter what, but knowing that she was truly proud of me gave me pause to reconsider my previous plans.

By my senior year of high school my dreams of Hollywood felt as though they were crashing down. I realized I’d not saved nearly enough money from my job at McDonald’s (which I took after I turned 16). My friend, Lauren, and I had planned to move to the west coast after high school was over, but even she had started having other thoughts by the end of summer and now California felt less of a reality. I knew my parents couldn’t afford to help me…so, that meant doing what other students were doing: buckling down and deciding what I wanted to do after high school if the Hollywood thing wasn’t going to happen. My Mom suggested (more than once) that she wished I’d go to nursing school. Her best friend from her own high school years, Marie, became a registered nurse. Marie had always wanted my Mom to go to nursing school with her, but Mom was terrified of blood and gore, so she had 5 children and called it good.

For senior year, I signed up to take a nurses’ aide training course that my high school offered. The class lasted the entire academic year and culminated in a clinical experience in the final months of school. I had to admit that I was enjoying the course. I was learning a lot and found that I didn’t have a ‘weak’ stomach when it came to things that grossed many of my classmates out.  Lauren, my friend, was also taking the course, so it was even more fun! We even did our clinical together on the same floor of New Britain General.

I will never forget the lessons that Mrs. Pavano, an RN and our instructor, taught us, for they served me well throughout my nursing career and in my life. One of those lessons was that the last sense believed to leave a dying person is their sense of hearing.  “Always talk with your patients while providing care—even if they don’t appear to consciously hear you,” she said. 

Lauren and I were caring for the 4 patients on one of the smaller wards of the medical/surgical unit. Mrs. Pavano insisted on patient privacy, so Lauren drew the curtain between our patients so that she could take Mr. Smith’s vital signs.

Lauren: “Mr. Smith, my name is Lauren and I am training to be a nurses’ aide. I’m going to take your temperature. Mr Smith? Can you help me turn you over? Mr. Smith? MR SMITH?!” Then, a long, pregnant pause. A tense, reedy voice could be heard above all the beeps and tvs on in the room. Mr. Smith, I think you’re dead!  ….uhhhhh……..Karen….I think Mr. Smith’s dead!!!“

I ran for help while Lauren stayed with the late Mr. Smith. The nurses on the floor were very kind and assured us that we had not killed him.

It was around February of my senior year that my brother, Tom, on leave from the army and preparing to do a second tour of Vietnam, had a serious heart-to-heart with me. He laid out a plan that was unbelievable. He was willing to pay for my first year of nursing school and all expenses with 2 conditions:  I would need to attend a baccalaureate program (a 4 year degree program in nursing) and I would need to go somewhere out of the state of Connecticut. Both ideas terrified me. I had earlier decided to attend an in-hospital diploma nursing school program (I’d been accepted to 4 of the top programs in the State of Connecticut). And, the thought of leaving my Mom and family scared me to death. Tom had been working on me for a while and actually thought it would be a great plan for me to go into the army following my nursing education, where my bills would be paid off and I would be a Lieutenant on graduating. He even took me on a trip to Ft. Bragg in N. Carolina to show me the benefits of an officer’s life (he was, at the time, a Captain).

One step at a time, I thought. I pored through college catalogues and came up with a list of potentials: The University of Hawaii,  San Diego State, University of Houston, University of Florida and the University of South Carolina.  I quickly applied and was accepted at all, though wait-listed in Hawaii and San Diego. This meant that Houston was the farthest from home I was accepted for the fall semester! That, then, was where I aimed to go!

Tom, in Vietnam for nearly 4 months by the time I left for college, had entrusted me with his yellow convertible-top KarmannGhia. It was a sweet little ride, pretty much brand new and kept in pristine condition. I was the only one allowed to drive it (I was the only one who knew how to drive a stick shift!). I tried to teach my Mom, but she would get all twitter-pated and roll the car backwards down hills. My brother, Ken, was still too young to drive, so he held down the back seat. I elected to do the entire drive myself. So, in August of 1972, we made our way through the myriad states between Connecticut and Houston stopping at every giant ball of string and cavern that the roadside signs advertised. It was a great adventure culminating in my realization, when we first drove into Houston, that cowboys weren’t riding horses down the streets and there was no cactus to be found. Houston, as it turned out was a huge and vibrant city.

My Mom and brother remained with me for the first 5 days in this, my newfound city. We stayed at a small hotel just off-campus, played in the pool, visited some of the landmarks and tried to decipher the thick east-Texas accents. Of course, the native folks had an equally difficult time in deciphering our own rapid-fire, clipped New England speech patterns; the kind that added “r’s” where they didn’t exist (eg; “idear”) and removed them when they did (eg; “kwatah”—that’d be “quarter”).  I met my roommate, MaryLou, for the coming year and introduced her to my family. Everything was just fine until I took Ken and Mom to Houston Intercontinental Airport to board a flight back to Connecticut; then it hit me.

Although MaryLou was sitting next to me, I felt utterly alone. Thankfully, that didn’t last very long. Where I was quiet and reserved, MaryLou was outgoing. We were both exceptionally bright, but we had totally different study habits. MaryLou HAD them, I didn’t. Although I maintained a high GPA in high school, I essentially coasted along. I rarely studied, almost never brought a book home and crammed most everything I should have taken home and really learned into the study halls that peppered my school days. Yet, even with atrocious habits, I managed to eke out good grades; not top-tier, though I suspect they could have been, had I applied myself. On the other hand, MaryLou was very studious. She set strict curfews on her time and really managed her classes well. Conversely, I was skating through by the skin of my teeth. It didn’t start well for me.

When I went to the initial registration session to sign up for all of my freshman classes, I was overwhelmed. First, as it turned out, the University of Houston didn’t even offer a nursing program. What they offered were nursing school pre-requisites, which you could then transfer to any state university. I was extremely disappointed to learn this as I’d hoped to stay at the same school throughout my undergrad educational experience. I located the standard requirements for students who, in their junior years, would apply to one of the many nursing schools in Houston: Anatomy & Physiology, Microbiology, Organic Chemistry, Human Sexuality, Statistics, Trigonometry, 2 semesters of English, Psychology, Physics, Nutrition, Poly Sci, History, Speech, Physical Education. I looked at the list with a good deal of frustration. Had I gone to a diploma nursing program as I’d planned, I’d already be in a hospital doing who-knows-what-to-whom. Here it was going to be at least 2 years before I even saw the inside of a hospital. It seemed like a lifetime! AND, there were no guarantees that I’d get any of the classes I was signing up for, anyway. Incoming freshmen had lowest priority in their choice of classes.

Most of my worry was for naught…I did get most of the classes I’d signed up for, including Human Sexuality, a sophomore-level class.

Human Sexuality was the most popular class on campus. It was taught by Dr. James Leslie McCary, who was on-par with Masters and Johnson in terms of studies and renown in the field. With 1200 students, it was the largest class on campus and held in the Cullen Auditorium. AND, they took attendance, I’d heard. It also happened to be the very first class I would attend in college. I was a wreck. I’d barely learned my way around campus. I still had the clunky outline folder I’d been given in orientation which contained maps of campus. While I came from a decent-sized high school with a 3 year population of 2,000 pupils, nothing prepared me for entering a campus with more than 30,000 students!

I awoke early to be certain I’d have adequate time to get to class. Now, for me, early meant about 9am; I am and always have been a night-owl. I re-checked my class schedule and verified that class began at 10am. I gathered together notebooks, pens and pencils and other paraphernalia. I had no idea what I’d actually need. Then, I nervously showered and dressed only to walk outside our frigidly air-conditioned dormitory building into the oppressively hot and humid August air. Within 3 steps of the dorms, I may as well not have showered at all. I made my way through the winding paths that took me from Moody Towers past the school mascot, Shasta, a beautiful mountain lion kept caged in an air-conditioned space between campus buildings. The University of Houston’s teams are The Cougars, and so Shasta was carted to all big events.

Getting past Shasta, I turned and headed to the Cullen Auditorium. I made my way in past students who were leaving and found a seat mid-way down the center aisles. My strategy was to get a decent seat, but not be up in the front where I might be called on during class. I looked around the huge auditorium, only to realize that it was 10 till the hour and I was one of only a handful of people inside. Well, maybe many students don’t attend the first session, I reasoned. Or maybe they’re mostly coming from across campus. I waited, at first patiently, and then nervously as the minutes ticked by. At about 5 till, I turned and asked a boy sitting behind me if I was in the place where Dr. McCary’s sex class was held. “Yes,” he said. Whew…I guess I was worried for nothing. At about 3 minutes till 10am, I scanned the room. There were maybe 100 kids within…nowhere close to filling the auditorium for such a huge and popular class. I noticed someone had come in and taken a seat a few rows ahead of me. I caught their eye as they turned to look around the room. “Excuse me…” I began. “Is Dr. McCary’s sex class in this room?” “Uh huh,” they replied. OK, I thought…I guess I just need to be patient.

At about 10:01, a man in tight black pants bounded up on the stage.  “Hey y’all, and welcome to class! For those of y’all who didn’t pick up a syllabus, I expect for the guys to wear comfortable shorts and shirts. For the gals, I’d like you to wear tights and either shorts or a loose skirt. I want y’all to be comfortable in all of the positions!” I was still writing the words down when all of a sudden, they took shape in my mind. POSITIONS? OMG, I’m in the Human Sexuality LAB!!!  I was starting to grow clammy and slightly nauseated as he continued…”Next time, y’all, we’re gonna get on down to it! We’ll separate the guys and gals for the first part of class, then y’all’ll (yes, they did say things like that…an abbreviation of a non-existent, abbreviation) come together, choose your partner for the first part of this semester, get comfy and make some magic.” I wanted to sprint out of my seat and run back to the dorms, call my Mom and have her come get me. I mean, I’d barely had a date in high school. This was totally out of my league! For over ten minutes, I sat there, every word more frightening to me than the one before. That’s when he started talking about dance theory and suddenly, everything he was saying took on new meaning. Wait a minute? Hadn’t I asked if this was the room where Dr. McCary taught Human Sexuality? And, hadn’t I checked my class schedule to see that it started precisely at 10am on Thursday? I gathered my things and slid out of the room. I didn’t have my next class for another hour or so. I went back to the dorms, wondering how I could have gotten myself so confused.

The housekeeper was finishing vacuuming my room when I reached the 4th floor of Moody Towers. I skirted around her equipment and went to the desk along the windows and found my schedule. THERE IT WAS!! Human Sexuality—on Thursday—what?!!! From 8:30-10?! Why hadn’t I noticed the 8:30 before?! Great. First class, first DAY of classes and I missed it!

Of course, soon enough I found my rhythm and was actually making most of my classes; AND dating! Me, the girl who no one seemed to know existed in high school, and I was dating like mad! On the first day living in the dorms when MaryLou and I were setting up our work spaces, I turned my high-intensity desk lamp on to be sure it worked and turned it right back off. Immediately, a network of repeatedly flashing lights assaulted us from many of the rooms throughout the 17 stories of the men’s tower.  The light show was promptly followed by a phone call from “Josh,” a junior who’d broken the code for the assignment of phone numbers to the women’s dorm. There were dates galore (but, not with Josh!). The most inventive line I believe I heard was the young man who approached me in the cafeteria as I was eating dinner alone one evening. “New England,” he said as he neared my table. “Um….what?” I asked, not understanding how he knew or what he was getting at. “I can tell by your dining habits.” I looked at him curiously, hoping I didn’t have spinach in my teeth. He was cute. “My dining habits?” “Yes, you’re eating fried chicken with a fork and knife. That just isn’t done any place else. Dead giveaway!” It hadn’t occurred to me that it could be eaten another way. “And, if you say something, I may be able to pinpoint where you’re from”  “What would you like me to say?”  “Hmmm….Southern New England. I can’t tell where just yet.” This was absolutely fascinating to me! He never did narrow it down further. Connecticut can be a tough accent to figure out.

Then, at some point, during my first 30 days, I met Rob. Rob was a VERY tall, slender, good-looking, sandy-haired boy whose family had moved to Houston from Arkansas within the previous few years. I don’t even remember how we first met, but he was such a sweet guy and clearly liked me. While I liked him, too, I wasn’t wanting all this serial dating magic to end just yet. I was enjoying this attention thing (having had 32 dates in my first 30 days on campus!). It was just short of a miracle, to me! Mostly Rob and I just met to talk (as opposed to going somewhere). I could listen to him speak all day. He had the cutest Arkansan accent and a deep voice. One day he was telling me about a bayou that ran past his home; only when he said ‘bayou’ it took on a life of it’s own. Instead of the 2 syllables we’d have used in Connecticut saying ‘Buy-You,’ he’d pared it almost down to one, saying “Baow.” I would ask him repeatedly to say it to me…I had never heard anything like it.  He was so good-natured about playing along with me on this! And, good-natured about me dating other guys, even though I don’t think he was seeing anyone else.

One of the guys I started dating was “Martin.” Martin’s brother owned the tavern across the street from the college. It was the hangout for university students and was packed night-after-night. I’m not sure why I ever consented to date Martin. He was surely the cheapest person I’d ever been with. One evening, he called to ask me to go with him to his brother’s tavern. “Sure!” I said. “Don’t eat, we’ll catch something to eat there,” he insisted. I was on the dorm’s meal plan and had very little free cash for anything other than necessities. Having a meal away from the there would be fun. We entered the restaurant and sat in a booth. This was the sort of joint where you would place your order via a phone set at your table and then they’d call you when your order was ready…hamburgers, foosball and beers…your basic college hangout.  When we started looking at the menu, Martin said, “I hope you aren’t hungry…I only have enough money for one meal.” He never looked at me for a response.  My heart sank into my stomach. I didn’t have any money. I smiled and indicated that it was no big deal, but I was starving…and mad. I could have had dinner in the dorms! I was more prepared the next time we went, having brought a little cash with me. This time, Martin had 2 friends at the table with us: Chuck and "Solomon" and they subsequently joined us most times when Martin and I would meet at Reggie’s. Chuck and Solomon were roommates. I didn’t think much of Sol; he seemed very self-absorbed and spoiled, but Chuck was a genuinely nice guy. As I was quickly learning, Martin wasn’t. Every time a well-endowed, good-looking girl would walk in, he’d excuse himself from our table and follow her to the foosball table. There he’d flirt with her, hunching over, Groucho-style, staring at her…um…attributes! After a few dates, I’d about had it with him, it was late October and Martin just wasn’t a deep enough person. I looked at Chuck when Martin got up to ogle the next girl and said, “The movie “Joe” is playing at the Quad on Thursday, does anyone want to go with me to see it?” I was so hoping that Chuck would answer, not Sol. I smiled when Chuck said, “I will!”

Thursday, November 2nd, 1972, then, was our first date. It didn’t start well. I was late meeting Chuck in the lobby of the dorm (Men weren’t allowed in women’s rooms). Chuck, as I soon learned, was very punctual. I wasn't (and am) not. We got to the movie just as the credits finished rolling at the start. I could tell he was a little bit peeved with me, but he got over it pretty quickly and we had a great time. Although I was still occasionally seeing Rob, most evenings I spent with Chuck. Most days, too, in fact: It turned out we had a physics class in common. And, we took to meeting up at the student union around lunchtime several days a week, with some friends of his. A week after meeting, it was Chuck’s 19th birthday and we spent the evening together. This was going very, very well! However, he let me know that he was going home to Cincinnati for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in a few weeks. I was not going to be able to go home until Christmas; I just didn’t have the financial capability.

By the second week of November, I was starting to become very homesick for Connecticut and my family. The thought of spending Thanksgiving alone in a mostly empty dormitory was not particularly appealing. I was getting bummed out. That’s when I saw Rob in the common area of the dorms. “Karen, you could come to my family’s home for the holiday. I know they’d love it—and you, “ he told me. I was really humbled that he’d asked me to his home. Since I’d started dating Chuck, I hadn’t been particularly available to Rob. His invitation reminded me of how sweet he was. I accepted and felt better, knowing I had a place to go and a family to share the holiday with. I was very excited!

On Thanksgiving day, I went to extra lengths to attend to my appearance. I wore a long dress I’d made while still in high school and made certain my hair looked nice. I was glad to have taken the extra time on my clothes and hair. Rob’s family dressed up for the occasion. His parents had a lovely ranch-style home in a beautiful area just north of Houston. Their large lot was lined with tall pine trees. When we got to the door, Rob’s mother greeted us. She was a beautiful woman, well-kept and elegantly dressed and coifed. Also there were several other family members: Rob’s younger sister, an older sister and her husband, both his parents and an aunt and uncle. Their home smelled divinely of the turkey that was roasting in the oven. There was a cacophony of sounds between everyone talking, laughing, the football game on tv and the sounds of meal preparation from the kitchen.  I glanced around the room—everything was perfectly in it’s place. Their home was simply lovely. Looking out a large picture window to the back yard revealed a beautifully manicured lot with an inviting patio. They even had a flagpole with a….WHAT?!...a Rebel Flag blowing in the slight breeze. I was slightly taken aback, but was soon distracted when another aunt and uncle came to the door. This was quite the gathering!

We enjoyed spending the afternoon talking with and learning about one another. Rob’s family was very welcoming and it was clear that he came by his sweetness honestly enough. At about 4 pm, Rob’s mom announced that we could be seated in their beautiful dining room and we proceeded there. The table was laden with heaping bowls of candied yams, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes and green beans. Rob’s dad brought out the beautifully browned turkey and carved it proficiently at the table.  My stomach was growling with hunger. I’d never seen a spread like this, except in magazines or on tv.  Bowls were passed and turkey served. The room quieted down to just the sounds of forks scraping plates and the appreciative gulps and lip-smacking that occur when you’re so lost in the moment, you forget your manners.  But, after the first few minutes, I noticed a strange lack of noise and, indeed,  had that sense that I was being examined and evaluated. I looked up from my plate to find that several family members were staring at me intently. Some politely dropped their gazes when I looked up…but, not Rob’s uncle. In fact, it may have intensified!  I looked at him questioningly. With a very thick Arkansan accent, he said, “So, you’re a Yankee!! (he said ‘Yankee’ in two distinct syllables and with a great sense of distaste). I can’t believe y’all won the Civil War.” I thought he was joking, and gave a nervous laugh. “Excuse me?” I replied, questioningly. He was dead serious. “I simply mean, I can’t believe the Yankees won the Civil War.” 

O.M.G.!!! I was in redneck hell!

Everyone looked at me, awaiting my response. “Sir, wasn’t that over 100 years ago?”

“Well, yes it was. But, the South will rise again, you can believe you me!”  Suddenly, I realized that most of the people in the room shared his view. It was a scene directly out of “GoneWith the Wind.” Not being one for confrontation, I mostly wished that I could disappear or be spirited out of the room. I have never been so happy as when Rob’s mom strategically slipped into the kitchen and brought out dessert, distracting even Rob’s uncle from the direction the conversation had taken.  Dessert was delightfully light: gelatin with whipped cream. Normally, I am not a fan of whipped cream on gelatin, but after the discomfort of the conversation, I put a big spoonful in my mouth, anticipating the soft, silken feel of sweet cream. Immediately after I did this, I was regretful and unsure what to do; I mostly wanted to vomit or spit it out. This was not gelatin with whipped cream! It was gelatin with mayonnaise on it!!! I thought I was going to die. And, now that I’d committed to it, I knew I had to swallow the mouthful of mayo and look happy doing it.  It was truly one of the most awkward and disgusting moments of my life! I really don’t remember much of the evening after that. I’m sure we stayed for a while after dinner and then Rob took me back to the dorms. Rob and I saw one another only a few more times after that. I realized that my feelings for Chuck were the real deal and didn’t want to lead anyone else on. It was the right decision, for we’ve now been together for 40 years, married for 35 as I write this. I surely hope that Rob found similar happiness, perhaps with a Southern girl who understood the Rebel yell and liked her gelatin with mayonnaise. 

 © 2013 Ryb Katz. All rights reserved

Monday, August 22, 2011

O, Say Can You See (Spiders!)?!

My sister and I, being the only female children in our family (that we knew of anyway), slept together in a double bed. We grew up very poor in the working class town of New Britain, Connecticut  during the "Golden Age" of American life; a time when most people found their lives in a far better state than that of their own parents. It was the early 1960s and 15 or more years had passed since the end of WWII. Baby Boomers were still being born, at least for a few more years. But, my family struggled to make ends meet. So, with 5 kids and only 2 bedrooms to put us in, there was a girls' room and a boys' room.

We were lucky, in that, our bed was big and comfy and we kept one another warm by snuggling all night. It was a good system, for the bitterly cold Connecticut winters were equally cold inside of our home. We didn't have heat.

We children were assigned age and gender-specific jobs, not unusual in that era. As the youngest, my job was to clean the bathroom. It always took me the entire day, every weekend, owing to my procrastinistic nature and ability to be easily distracted by absolutely everything. My sister had several jobs, being older (and quicker) than I. One of them was making our bed and straightening our room. I think I was around 5 years old.

I was cleaning the tub, when I heard my sister let out an audible, "Look, a spider!" I ran to the room, adjacent to the bathroom, only to see what appeared to be an enormous brown, spindly and very quick-moving spider on the bedspread. My sister wasn't afraid of spiders, but she wasn't anxious to touch one, either. She just watched it scamper across the bed. I was shrieking, transfixed, "I'm not ever, EVER going to sleep there again," as if I had numerous options. Our mother raced up the stairs, trying to determine who was bleeding or bruised from all the commotion. Satisfied that neither of us was, she inquired as to why I was carrying on so. "Mommy, there's a spider in my b-bed," I stammered, tears filling my eyes. "Oh,'s probably just a daddy long legs...and it's probably already gone."

Now, as convincing as the sound of her words was, the tone was something else entirely. I never realized till later in life that my Mom was also fearful of spiders. OK, not as much as I am, but still...she wouldn't have sought out the offending arachnid. She merely pooh-poohed my fears in a common-sense sort of way. "Mommy, I will never, EVER sleep in that bed again." She smiled at me and just quietly said, "We’ll see."

When it was time to go to bed that night, I pitched such a fit that my mother was forced to disassemble the bed linens to prove to me that the spider was gone. After that, during my growing up years, there were awful instances of spiders dropping onto my head when I'd play in trees, crawling on me while I lay on the floor to watch TV and just be the endless source of fear-inducing torture treatments for my older brothers to mete upon me. Yes, they thought my arachnophobia was just GREAT!

I recall seeing the "Incredible Shrinking Man" at the movie theatre as a kid. We had 3 theatres in our downtown: The Strand, The Palace and The Embassy. On weekends, usually the Palace and/or the Embassy would show double- or triple-features (for the young among you: that would be 2 or 3 movies in a row, preceded by cartoons and usually graphics of dancing sodas and hot-dogs to inspire your visit to the concession stand). Back then, the cost of a movie ticket was about 25¢. It was the absolute best babysitting deal for kids back then. Our parents knew we were safe for an entire afternoon while they relaxed or did projects. We reveled in the giant screens and ornate theatres of the day, complete with balconies and pay toilets with ultra-violet lights that purportedly 'sterilized' the seat! (Of course, the u-v light was located under the seat, so it was difficult to understand how, in any way, that could actually sterilize the surface). But, it cost an additional 10¢ for the privilege!

During the movie (for those who haven't seen it), a man who was exposed to dangerous chemicals, begins inexplicably shrinking. There is a point at which he becomes so tiny that as he is trying to escape the housecat (who thinks he is a playful treat), he falls down the stairs and into the cellar. In the basement, there is a ginormous, hairy black spider, many times the size of the now quite-shrunken man. He learns to hide from the spider by ducking into a match box, but finally realizes that the spider WILL eat him if he doesn't do something. In a moment of rarified bravery (or foolishness) he finds a hat pin and, when the spider alights atop him, he impales it, spider blood gushing forth. It was the most terrifying and disturbing thing I'd ever seen. I think I might have been 7 years old. From that time forward, I had repetitive night terrors with giant spiders alighting atop my sleeping body. I'd wake up; screaming in terror and sweat dripping down, and the spider would still be there for several seconds, until the hallucination would dissipate. But, I just couldn't even bring myself to tell my mother what was wrong. Even thought I was crazy--surely she would have me committed!

My night terrors continued, literally, into adulthood.

I remember working at the Kelsey-Seybold Clinic in Houston while I was a nursing student at the U of Texas in Houston. I'd gotten a job there even before starting the clinical part of nursing school, to help pay my way through. I worked in medical records, which was in the basement of the building. The basement. Just like in the Incredible Shrinking Man!

On Saturdays and in the evenings, I worked late and often was the last person out of the building. I was not afraid of being alone there. I wasn't afraid of anything. Except for spiders! Luckily, I didn't see any. Well, except that one time. I needed to find a chart that we'd sent to Dr. Pranke's office. Because I was alone in the building and it was nighttime, I needed to ride the elevator up to the 4th floor to get it. I pressed the elevator button and, there inside, was a GINORMOUS tarantula! I had never seen one, but just like in the Incredible Shrinking Man, it was hairy and looked very threatening. I didn't know what else to do. I ran back into medical records, grabbed a Houston Yellow Pages (which weighs about 10 lbs!) and tossed it atop the giant spider. Please do not send the ASPCA to arrest me. I was only 18 years old and I was petrified of spiders that were tinier than my baby fingernail. This was traumatic! I shut the elevator door, grabbed my purse and left the building, using the stairs for safe measure. I just couldn't stay, knowing that spider was still lurking dangerously close.

A few years later, early in our marriage and while living in Colorado, my husband would humor me...slaying the dragon, so to speak, even if the spider was an itsy bitsy one. I felt much protected! But, as time marched on, he became a bit less tolerant of my fear of even the most innocuous spiders. He could handle that I didn't want anything to do with the black widows in our cords of firewood and stone piles...less so of the miniscule arachnids who managed to find the part of the ceiling directly above my head, waiting till I climbed into the covers to drop...or worse, suddenly disappear from view, so I wouldn't know where they'd gone, exactly!

Yes, Chuck put up with a lot! Finally, a neighbor clued me in to a WONDERFUL solution. It didn't get rid of spiders altogether, but it was a solution for when they appeared. Get the vacuum out! I started leaving the Electrolux assembled, lying in wait for the next victim. Chuck might be sound asleep at 1:30am, when I'd suddenly see a spider on the ceiling, through my peripheral vision, while reading a book. No problem! I'd get the vacuum and suck the little bastard up! What a great system. Chuck wasn't too thrilled with it, though. And, then, there were the times when, instead of sucking the spider into the vacuum, the vacuum arm knocked it down and into the bed. Then, I'd have to vacuum the bed...otherwise, I couldn't sleep in it! Really.

I ended up realizing it was silly to have a giant vacuum to get rid of spiders. So, I bought myself a Dust-Buster mini vac. It was a perfect size and seemed the best solution. Plus, the model I bought had an extension arm that increased the reach...perfect for those midnight monsters on the ceiling!

I can't tell you how many of the spiders I vacuumed up...but, I can tell you it was a lot! A few months later, when I went to empty the vacuum chamber, sure it would be brimming, it was EMPTY. Yes. Empty! No little spider corpses within. Suddenly I realized that, either I had: 1) a bunch of pissed-off, oft-vacuumed spiders in my house 2) One giant, monstrous specimen had been eating all the spiders in the vacuum and had now escaped...OR...3) I'd been vacuuming up the same spider over and over again! Horrors!

In that same house, we had an honest-to-goodness air raid shelter. And, for those of you too young to know or remember: back in the early 60's, during the cold war with Soviet Union, we had 'air raid drills.' These were designed so that more people would allegedly survive a nuclear attack by those pesky Russians! Most people would go to a designated Air Raid Shelter (usually a school or public building) and gather. However, some people, like the paranoids who'd previously owned our home, just built one into the house. Now, we weren't too worried about a Russian nuclear threat in 1992--we had, I just decided to use it as a room to store wines, the beer that Chuck brewed and the fruits and veggies I'd canned.

The problem was, being dug out of the ground, and with barely any structure, it was mostly a radon-filled spider habitat. Now, this is why I had decided to bear children: my son would gallantly go forth and fetch beer, wine or any canned good I might have stored. I don't believe I ever retrieved anything he didn't grab for me before he left for college in 1996. I left it all there for whoever would move into the house after us. I just couldn't make myself go in there.

In 2004, we left Colorado for Southern California. Both of our kids ended up there, so it seemed like a good plan. We moved to Del Mar, just north of San Diego. Chuck and I would go on daily walks. We marveled at the fact that we could walk in our shorts in October and November, when our friends in Colorado were digging out from early season snows! It was great. Mostly, earlier in the summer and fall, we'd walk along the beach near Torrey Pines. But, as the weather started getting cooler near the ocean, we took it inland and would walk a 3-4 mile stretch near our apartment. It was an area lined in trees and bushes and had lots of gorgeous flowers.

I remember the first time I saw one: a GIANT orb spider that dropped down from a tree we were walking under. I screamed and shoved Chuck out of the way. No, not to protect him. It was my egress route! There was no way I was getting anywhere near that thing! Then I realized, starting around October, they were EVERYWHERE. I don't know if they had previously been too small to notice or what...but, never did I see one till October...They would string webs across the sidewalk and dart back and forth across, hang from trees above and to our sides. I felt like I was under siege. How could Chuck walk KNOWING that they were all about? Was I the only one who saw them?

A year later, we bought a home in Orange County, about an hour north of Del Mar. We had a lovely yard, filled with all sorts of fruit trees: lemons, limes, kumquats, oranges, pears, apples, and figs. In addition, we had roses and all sorts of other flora. I absolutely LOVED our yard. We moved there in June, just in time for the birth of our first grandchild, living in nearby Newport Beach. I now had a new focus that dominated my attention (and digital camera space!). It was glorious to be a grandma.

Rancho Santa Margarita (RSM) was built around a man-made 'lake.' It was really a beautiful spot and there was a concrete path around the lake (about 2 miles around). It was tree-shaded and just lovely. However, as fall approached, when I looked upward at the canopy formed by the branches of the trees, there were the dreaded spider webs and large dangling spiders up above. At first, they weren't particularly large or threatening. However, by October's end, they were humungous and dropped precipitously down from atop their high perches, ostensibly to gather a morsel for storage in their vast webs. I had to start wearing hats, to guard against the dropping arachnids. I wanted to carry a tennis racket, with which to protect myself, but mine was packed in the garage from the move still. I started to wonder if this was why spiders are associated with Halloween...since this seemed to be an October phenomenon? Or maybe it's why autumn is also called 'fall,' because of the falling arachnids?!

I found that I just couldn't make myself do these autumnal 'obstacle courses.' Other walkers and joggers would stare as I'd bat at (what probably looked like) empty airspace, with seizure-like efficiency and grace. As good as walking is for the heart, the terror that spiders inspired in me was likely to be equally bad. I couldn't do it! Instead, I retreated to the solace and quietude of my lovely back yard.

I was sitting on our patio, when I saw something large and yellow moving very quickly in some of the tall border plants to my right about 30 feet away. I got up off of my chair and moved toward the plants, looking intently. Suddenly, I saw the biggest ass spiders I have seen outside of the Houston tarantula experience! These were orb spiders with an attitude! Their bodies were about the size of the palm of my hand, their legs, long and sleek. They had black and yellow markings. They were intent on capturing the Africanized bees that had formed a nest in our back yard. To be honest, I was able to appreciate these particular arachnids...they were smooth and efficient in dispatching the bees, seemingly catching them in mid-flight as they bumped their webs. But, mostly because they were where they belonged : not in my home or above my head in the trees, ready to drop down and terrify. They were far enough from my house to not pose a threat, they were serving a useful purpose (as all spiders do), but they were also quite lovely, in their own way. Their webs were architectural marvels. As long as they stayed there, I could deal.

Then, almost 2 years ago, we ended up moving to Seattle. I'd been quite amazed, my first year, at the fact that there didn't appear to be spiders here. I was elated, in fact. If I had to live in a place with this much rain and coffee, it was nice to know that at least I didn't have to co-exist with spiders! But, I grew to see that it is probably because we bought the model home in our subdivision. It was probably heavily sprayed for the time it was being used. My neighbors say they see some spiders. And, in this second year, while I haven't seen more than an anemic-looking tiny specimen indoors, I have started seeing some small-to-medium-sized orb spiders outdoors on the trees and webs that travel from bushes to raspberry plants. I was doing fine. Until. Until I went to the hardware store to buy some organic plant food. There, on the shelf, someone had misplaced a bag of "Hobo Spider" killer. WTF?!

I went on the internet and did a Hobo Spider search. Holy Moly! This critter is also known as the 'aggressive' house spider. GREAT! Turns out, this is a spider whose forebears hitched a ride on a boat from Asia to the Port of Seattle with cargo, and set up housekeeping, probably mating with some native species. They are large and ugly and evidently have the same skin-sloughing potential as the brown recluse! Lovely!
So, now, every night when I go to bed, I check the wall, I check the ceiling and I think, "Mommy! If I see that spider in my bed, I will NEVER sleep there again!"

© 2009 Ryb Katz. All rights reserved

Big Ass Spider in Rancho Santa Margarita backyardAnother big-ass spider in RSM!

A smaller Renton, Washington spider for comparison.OK...I am NOT sure what is contained within this treetop web on our walk along the Cedar River...but, I'd hate to see the big-assed spider that built it!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Nut Lady...or the Fall of the Acorn

The Nut Lady…or the Fall of the Acorn

I was going thru a tough time in my life, though others have undoubtedly been through worse. As my sister always tells me, ‘your reality is your own.’ Brilliant. My angst is not particularly germane to the story, other than the fact that it was my state of mind that led Ellie to decide that I required some cheering up. I flew from Aspen to Massachusetts to spend some time with my family of birth.

When I arrived in New England, my sister said, “While you are here, I think you and I need to visit the Nut Lady.” I totally love my sister, but I was thinking she might be two slices of bread short of a loaf here. “The Nut Lady?” I asked. “You’ll see,” she replied, somewhat cryptically. Um. Ok. I figured she’d forget before my 3 weeks ended, so I wasn’t all that worried about being tied into a trip to Southern Connecticut where this Nut Woman allegedly set up shop. 

I was enjoying my time with my family, as I always do. My elderly mother and I would cap off every night with a salvo of Scrabble games; sometimes 4 or more per evening. We had a friendly competition going ever since she’d begun teaching me the finer points of the game when I was 10. I suppose that, even then, she knew that she was creating a ready opponent. My Mom, in her prime, was probably the most brilliant human being I’ve ever met to this day. Parts of her mind still hold vestiges of that intellect even today, though she is nearly 85 and her brain has been ravaged by multiple ischemic strokes over the past 26 years. She still can spout off wry witticisms, almost without taking a breath after someone makes a comment to her. 

My Mom and I have the same tendency to relieve tension, boredom and depression through playing solitary games: puzzles, solitaire, etc. For some reason the ‘mindlessness’ of game play seems to alleviate the bulk of the stress. Or perhaps it just tamps it down so that it can be dealt with another day. Sometimes, we would sit for hours and do puzzles or play solitaire parallel to one another. However, Scrabble, and other games of skill and strategy, were always reserved for evenings; honing our minds and psyching eachother out. Rarely did I ever win against my Mother. And, she respected me too much to ever ‘throw’ a game. I knew when I won, I deserved it. 

My Mom had a very difficult life. When I was going through my own hardships, I wouldn’t need to say a word. Somehow, in our silence and the intensity of our play, my problems appeared to minimize and seem almost downright ridiculous. There was just something about being around her that made that happen, even though nothing was ever discussed. Of course, my time in New England was not limited to playing games. I also spent time with my nieces and nephew, visited 2 of my brothers who still lived in Massachusetts and Connecticut, respectively and hung out with my best friend since 2nd grade, Debbie Peterson. 

As the time was nearing to wrap up my trip, Ellie started to, once again, remind me that we needed to visit the Nut Lady. I had never heard of her and was not all that excited about visiting her, but if it would make my sister happy (or at least make her stop nagging), I would do it. We scheduled the trip to Lyme, Connecticut, for a Thursday; I was leaving on Saturday. I really had put this off for my entire visit. 

The day started out pretty much like any other. Mom and I had breakfast, I gassed up my rental car and drove over to Ellie’s home to pick her up. Her daughter, Lauren, had decided to come with us, as well. Most of my family now lives in South Central Massachusetts, just over the Connecticut border. Lyme is in Southern Connecticut, right along Long Island Sound. The drive down should take about 1½ hours, we reckoned. 

Ellie is a Type I (Juvenile) Diabetic and very ‘brittle’ in control of her disease. She always has to carry an arsenal of testing supplies, medications and food goods to treat any and all emergencies that could potentially arise on a journey of any length. She doesn’t usually venture too far from home due to the vast considerations of her illness; so, this was an unexpected treat: to be able to sojourn with her to the edges of her earth…or at least, New England! 

We drove, at her instruction, down a freeway on the eastern side of Connecticut, I believe it was the 395, heading south toward our target. It was autumn and the trees were starting to turn. The weather was lovely, sunny and warm further north, but as we got into Southern Connecticut, the skies grew cloudy and gray. We got to Lyme right on schedule and just as the drizzling started. 

“Ok, where is the Nut Lady?” I turned to Ellie and asked. “Well….I don’t exactly know…” came her reply. “I just figured we’d find her when we got here…” she let out a nervous giggle. I was not amused. “You know,” I started, “I could have gotten a TripTik” from AAA, but you said you knew where the Nut Lady was!” “But, I did!” she insisted. “she’s in Lyme.” 

I just growled.

“Why don’t you go to that gas station, Auntie Karen,” interjected my peace-seeking niece. “Over there.” She pointed to an old-fashioned service station down the street, the sort that still had full-service pumps and a garage. I pulled in. It was starting to rain harder. “I’m NOT going in,” I said to clear up any potential doubt. “I am NOT asking anybody where the ‘Nut Lady’ lives.” 

“She has a museum,” said my sister in a small voice. “Oh, alright; I’ll go in,” she said, dejectedly.

Within a few moments, Ellie and 3 attendants were standing outside, pointing down the street. One of the men came up to the driver’s side of the car. “You need to drive down here,” he indicated with a flick of his index finger; his cigarette dangling, mostly turned to ash. “Then turn left and head to the ocean. Drive a short ways to your right and zigzag and you’ll see the sign.” He shook his head and continued: “Man that Lady is nuts, though. She’s like…” and he made the sound of a space ship from the outer limits and twirled his index finger, pointed at the side of his head, in circles. 

Ellie climbed into the passenger seat. As we pulled out of the service station lot, we could see the attendants pointing at our car and laughing. Ellie started laughing, too. A lot. “See! I told you this would be fun!” she said, gleefully.

We followed his instructions exactly. We found the Sound; we zigzagged, but we never saw a sign for any ‘Nut Museum.’ We continued down the street he’d indicated, but only came to a naval launch at an inlet for the Sound. We turned and headed back toward town. “What now?” I asked, somewhat rhetorically. 

I am someone who almost never gets lost in the daytime. I don’t do well with maps or GPS units, but I’m great about committing landmarks to memory. At least, I think that’s how I do it. I started to retrace our steps back to town. I noticed, on the right side of one of the streets we were on, there was a psychiatrist’s office. “Hmmm…” I observed. “Nut Lady.” Surely here, they would have heard of her. I pulled up alongside the house on the quiet, mostly residential street, with the shingle on the lawn. I wasn’t quite sure what to do when I got to the door. Maybe it was someone’s home and they just did part-time psychiatry. I wasn’t willing to just bust in there like a…well, nut! I knocked softly. Rat-tat-tat…no answer. I rapped louder. Still no answer. Defeated, I returned to the car. But, not before another car pulled up behind mine. I walked back and indicated to the driver, a middle-aged man, that I wished to ask him a question. He rolled down his window, somewhat cautiously.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you know where the Nut Museum is?” I implored. (it was really more like plain old asking, but ‘implored’ sounded more pitiful here). He raised one eyebrow, ala Mr Spock, and said, “I may have heard of it, but I don’t know where it is.” He kept glancing at the psychiatrist’s sign, then at me. He looked at his watch like he was late for an appointment. Maybe he was the psychiatrist, I reasoned. But, no, he went up the walkway to the adjacent home and let himself in. Ellie was on the floor laughing at me when I returned to the car. “Did you see the look on his face?” she snorted, and broke into fresh gales of laughter. I took one look at her and started laughing, too. And, Lauren was laughing in the back seat. We’d been gone from Connecticut for nearly 3 hours and were no closer to finding the Nut Lady than when we’d left! 

“I think I saw a fire house just before we turned onto this street, just down from the gas station,” I said. “The firemen would have to know the Nut Lady…” I drove to the clean, new building I’d seen earlier and pulled into the lot. Chuck, my husband, was a volunteer firefighter/EMT for 15 years in Colorado. Firemen knew everything that went on in a town! 

It was raining quite hard, by now. I pulled my jacket up over my head and ran to the side of the building. Locked. I guess Lyme had a volunteer department, too. There was no evidence that there was anyone in the building. No cars. Nothing. I ran back to the car and climbed in. “No luck.” By now, I was becoming intrigued with the idea of meeting this Nut Lady. Certainly, she was not highly regarded by the townsfolk. But, strangely enough, considering the reactions of the locals, she wasn’t trying to be on center stage, either. 

“Where to go…where to go?” I pondered. Now, Lyme is a very pretty, very quaint small New England village. Aside from being the inspiration for the spirochete that bears its name, it appeared that Lyme had a plentitude of museums. It occurred to me that one museum usually fraternizes another. “Let’s go to a museum and ask!” I exclaimed. This had to work!

We quickly sighted an art museum that was both open and appeared to be busy. Ellie and I alit from the car and dashed inside, the rain still coming down in giant, wet globs. Just within, there was a woman sitting at a reception desk that looked more like a lectern. “May I help you?” she asked in VERY loud, nasally voice, all the while snapping her gum, creating a sound that was unpleasant and made me wish to leave. “Uh, yes…” I began, “Do you know where the Nut Lady’s Museum is?” Ellie echoed my words, a beat behind. “The NUT LADY?!!?,” the woman intoned, almost screeching. I felt as though I was in a library with a patron who was violating it’s quietude. I put my index finger to my lips. “Yes, The Nut Museum?” I repeated softly, hoping to model ‘our quiet voice.’ 

Very, VERY loudly and without provocation, she shrieked, “Does ANYONE know where the Nut Lady and her Museum are?!!! Anyone?!” I thought she was yelling at us…but, then, I realized she was asking her co-workers, whom we had not seen, to this point. A small voice, from upstairs, quietly responded, “I do.” The receptionist gestured us upstairs, tilting her head toward the staircase.

Ellie and I, red-faced, climbed up the stairs, only to find a petite, soft-spoken woman in an office. “I just took some friends there a few weeks ago. She’ll be closing any day for the season. She may already be closed, in fact. But, I can direct you right to her door.” Surely we hadn’t come all this way, only to discover she had closed for the season. We resolved to at least find her.

As it happens, she gave us the identical directions as the gas station attendants, with one important difference: the sign for the nut museum, she told us, was very, very small. We might overlook it, unless we knew just where to look. Her directions were impeccable. We thanked her profusely and left.

We drove back up the residential street where the yellow house stood that was also a psychiatrist’s office. The gentleman’s car was still parked in front of the adjacent house. I waved as I drove past, though he wasn’t in his car. “We’re going to the Nut Lady Museum,” I called out my open window. 

It occurred to me, just then, that I didn’t even know the story as to how Ellie had come up with this hare-brained scheme, so I asked her. She told me she’d recently read an article about The Nut Lady in Good Housekeeping Magazine. The article jogged her memory, for she recalled having seen her on Johnny Carson. She said she was very funny and just the thing for us. We drove up the zigzag street where the museum allegedly was housed. The homes here were far larger. THERE! On the Right. There was a sign no bigger than a corner street sign, hand-written and low to the ground. ‘Nut Museum’ was all it said. I turned the car into what appeared to be an alleyway. We drove just a short distance on this paved, narrow road, before coming to a very strange array of sculptures, all made of sheet metal. Behind the sculptures was a large home; a mansion, really. It was in a state of disrepair, but it clearly was the Nut Museum. We pulled up alongside the sculptures. 

Noticing the time on the dashboard clock, I realized it was now almost noon and I began to worry about Ellie. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Her diabetes is very unstable. “Now that we know where she is, should we go get some lunch and then come back?” I asked. “No way. We’re here now. I brought some instant breakfast. I’ll just drink that and I’ll be fine till after we do the museum. How long can it take, anyway?! We’ll be done in no time and go to lunch after.” So, we sat in the driveway, motor running, as Ellie pulled out her jar of chocolate instant breakfast and started to sip. 

I’m not sure what prompted me to do it, maybe just the residual silliness from this mornings’ events…but, I remembered that when we were little kids, if I was drinking something, Ellie would say to me, “I hope you don’t laugh and that drink comes out of your nose!” So, for some reason, I looked at her and said this and started laughing. Ellie started laughing, choking and snorting and the chocolate worked it’s way out of her nose and all over the windshield, glove compartment and her seat. We all started laughing, hysterical at the sight. The chocolate had spewed EVERYWHERE: the dashboard, windshield, cup holder. It really was funny. I would probably have to pay a clean-up fee for the rental car, but I didn’t care. However, in the midst of my laughter, my boobs pressed against the horn of the car. That was when we met Elizabeth Tashjian, the Nut Lady. She thought, in beeping the horn, we were summoning her. She came out on the great porch of her mansion. We exited the car and approached her, a tad cautiously. 

“Is the museum open?” I queried. “Oh, yes,” came her reply. But, they DID tell you there was a charge for admission, didn’t they?” I wasn’t sure who ‘they’ were, but I nodded my head. “Yes, I brought money.”

“That’ll be $2.00 each plus a nut per person.” She said in all seriousness. I cocked my head to the side as I looked straight into her eyes. A nut? She smiled and indicated a squirrel that was attached to the exterior wall of her home, just to the right of the door. She lifted it’s brass tail. The ‘entry nut’ was to go into a round slot in the squirrel’s ass and drop into a repository below. I couldn’t take my eyes off the squirrel or it’s ass. “Of course,” she winked, “if you don’t have a nut of your own, I DO have ‘loaners.’ This was when I knew that I would absolutely love the Nut Lady. Lauren, my niece, jabbed me in the side as she brushed past me. 

“I wasn’t expecting any visitors to the Museum today. I don’t get many at this time of the year, now that school is back in session, during the week. I close the Museum this Saturday for the season.” Elizabeth ushered us into the great foyer of her home/museum. The phone rang. “Will you please excuse me? It’s been ringing a lot lately.” “Of course,” we assured her. 

We started to glance around. Ellie’s attention was captured by the crown moulding in the foyer. I caught her glance and followed what she was staring at. “Look,” Ellie observed. “This is what she grew up with. No wonder she honors the nut.” The moulding had bas relief sculptures of acorns. And, there were acorns worked into the domed ceiling, as well. 

The mansion had to be well over 150-200 years old. It looked as though it hadn’t been attended to in almost that many years. The walls had dents with plaster and wood showing below. In places where there was wallpaper, some of it was torn or pulled away from the wall. There were stains on the painted sections. But, through all that, you could see the grandeur of what once was. There was a beautiful staircase leading to a second level. This was cordoned off and not available to view. To our left, we could see a display room and caught glimpses of nuts, large and small. Some were adorned, some plain. 

Articles from various magazines were posted on a wall in front of us. We edged closer to read. There were photos of Elizabeth with Johnny Carson on two of the magazines; younger, yes, but no less spirited in her mien. I suddenly realized that Lauren hadn’t followed us over to the magazines, but was standing in the foyer still, listening to Elizabeth on the phone. “Well, I’m not sure…yes. Yes, of course I would like to. May I think about it and let you know? Alright. I will call you back. Yes. Goodbye then.” She stirred a bit in the other room and came out, holding a large piece of material in her hand which she deftly smoothed out and put on over her clothing. It could best be described as something between a caftan and what a seer would wear when doing tarot readings. It definitely added to the eeriness of the setting! 

“That was the BBC. They want me to fly to Australia to do a talk show, but they never want to pay me enough. Johnny said to me, I’m going to make sure you get your AFTRA (union) card so that you will at least always be paid minimum! But, that’s only in the US. Now then…I see th…” she began. “Excuse me for overhearing your conversation,” Lauren interrupted. “But, do you have someone to represent you to the media? It’s clear to me that you have something they want. You have a lot to maintain here and that can’t be inexpensive for you to do. Plus, there are a lot of costs associated with traveling. An agent would negotiate all that for you. If I was you, I would tell them you are worth MORE than that. Your time ALONE is worth much more, and you want to be paid what you are worth!” The phone rang. “Excuse me,” Elizabeth said, apologetically.

“You know,” we over heard her speaking. “I have something you want. And, I have a lot of expenses maintaining my museum and no one to tend to it when I am away. I have my AFTRA card in the US and so I am paid at least minimums here, plus travel arrangements in the highest class. Maybe I should have my agent speak to…what? Ok…that would be fine. December 18th? Ok. Thanks. Yes, alright. I will wait to hear back from the scheduling desk. Goodbye.” 

Elizabeth returned to the room, beaming. She looked at Lauren and said, “I told them just what you said, and you were absolutely right! They are giving me everything I asked for, plus a first class ticket to Sydney! Say…will YOU be my agent?” It was the sort of question that had you wondering if Elizabeth was dead serious in asking, or if she was being facetious. Lauren laughed nervously, unsure. “Oh, I don’t think you’d want ME to do that,” she said softly. “Oh, but I DO!” came Elizabeth’s reply. “Well, I’ll have to think about it.” Lauren responded, a little sadly. We’d only known the Nut Lady for about 10 minutes.

Elizabeth sashayed, her satiny gown flowing behind her, into the main room of the museum, to the left of the entry of the mansion. “I see you were looking at my articles. Johnny changed my life. I loved him for that. He ‘got’ my humor. A lot of people think I’m crazy. But, I’m not! I’m eccentric and there’s a difference. Eccentric is bright and off-beat. Crazy is…well, crazy! I’m eccentric and I love being this way. I call myself a Nut Evangelist! There is no one but me singing the praises of the lowly nut. In fact, I’ve written a few songs about them.” She dashed past us and grabbed some giant, placards with musical notes and scales painted on them. “Would you like to hear me sing? Johnny paid me $10,000 to sing this, but I will sing to you for free!” Without so much as a nod from us, she launched into a heartfelt rendition of ‘Nuts To Youuuuuuuuuuu’ which stirred us to the core (and, truth be told, we had trouble not laughing out loud—and when she saw this, she gave us permission to laugh, because after all, it was funny!). If it ‘translates’ to this blog, here is Elizabeth, singing her own song,  "Nuts Are Beautiful"  :

Keep in mind that the ‘exhibit hall’ that we were in was perhaps the size of an average parlor or living room, maybe slightly larger. It took us 1-½ hours to go through the ‘exhibits,’ each with an explanation, a song or a memory of how they came to be in her possession, including the largest nut in the world, which I believe was a betel nut. The phone rang yet again. Elizabeth left us and indicated that we could go to the other ‘hall’ in the room that was to the right of the foyer. We made our way in there as she spoke with someone from a US network. She was definitely in demand.

In this second and larger ‘hall,’ we noticed that there were fewer small nut items and more of Elizabeth’s sculpture and paintings. We glanced around the room and noticed that, at the far end, there was a piano with a transparent tray of pastries atop. “Oh, my gosh. She is going to try and feed us afterward,” I said to Ellie! We broke into fresh gales of laughter. We pretty much had not stopped laughing since coming to Lyme. 

Elizabeth had come back into the room. Here she showed us masks made from nut husks and explained that her love of nuts was lifelong. She was born into an artistic family and her grandmother encouraged all her right-brained activities, including music and art. She started out as a fine artist in her earlier years and still enjoyed sculpting from sheet metal and painting. Many of her paintings, some quite lovely, graced the walls. She said she’d gone through a ‘nut evolution’ late in life. In her inimitable way, Elizabeth then proceeded to tell us her theory on nuts: “"Nuts have a heart. Hard and prickly sometimes on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. That's my philosophy." 
She caught Ellie staring at a strange-looking metal sculpture. “Oh, dear!” I made that one just for Johnny! He thought it was my best,” she exclaimed. “And, it’s anatomically correct, as he pointed out.” There stood a large amorphous stick figure carved from sheet metal. Between it’s legs dangled 2 chestnuts. “Nuts to youuuuuuuuuu,” Lauren sang softly. Elizabeth was priceless!

“Well, you can mill around this room some, but really, that concludes the tour of the Nut Museum.” We were now just over 2-½ hours in. Elizabeth walked to the end of the room and said, “I just baked some muffins. Would you care for any?” Caught off-guard, Ellie hesitated. I looked at Elizabeth and quickly said, “No thanks…we really need to go now.” She shrugged a shoulder toward Ellie and replied, “Well, SHE was going to say ‘yes’ before you said that!” She had me there! I went on to explain Ellie’s diabetes and that she would have eaten out of politeness, but that I needed to get her to a restaurant for a real meal. 

“Oh, ok.” Elizabeth seemed a little defeated. She reminded me a lot of Ruth Gordon, I decided. “But, I need to get a few things from the store and I no longer have a car. Can you drop me off at the Stop and Shop? It’s not very far…” I started to assure her we could, but Ellie broke in quickly, “You know, we’d be really happy to pick whatever you need up for you.” “Would you? You are so kind. Just a moment. I need to get something,” Elizabeth said. With that, she hurriedly left the room, removing her caftan as she floated. She did NOT move like a woman who had to be in her mid 80s, I mused. 

The moment she was out of sight, I looked at my sister. “Why did you say that, El?” I asked, my voice serious. “Because, if it took 2-½ hours for her to take us through her museum, how long do you think it will take for her to shop? And we can’t just leave her there! How would she get home?” I couldn’t really argue with that logic. There were maybe 15-20 minutes worth of exhibits at the Nut Museum. Had it not been for the entertainment portion of the program, we’d have been long gone.

Elizabeth reappeared, coupons in hand. “Would you like me to write this down for you?” I shook my head. The three of us would remember the few items she needed. “Ok,” she began, “they’re having a sale on this ice cream, Chocolate Royale. I love my ice cream. And, D’Angou pears, too. I really like them. Could you get a few?” We all nodded in assent. “Oh, and, I almost forgot. Some liverwurst. And, if you see any…” I looked over at Ellie and she was rolling her eyes in an ‘I told you so’ fashion. The list continued. And continued. Then Elizabeth handed us $100 in cash. “I hope this will be enough.” “I’m sure it will. We’ll be back very soon with your groceries and change,” Ellie said, rubbing Elizabeth’s shoulder with her palm. 

We returned to the car and, the minute I opened the door and saw the chocolate Instant Breakfast spewed all about, it brought to mind what an insanely strange day this had already been; and we weren’t even nearly done yet! We all climbed in. 

“Oh, Auntie Karen,” Lauren started. “she hadn’t known me for 10 minutes before asking me to be her agent. And she gave us $100 in cash. How does she know that we won’t just keep driving and pocket her money? Someone needs to protect her.” Lauren brought a moment of clarity to the situation. Yes, it would be easy to take advantage of someone so trusting. And, it makes you wonder how many have? We continued on to the Stop and Shop, a mile or so away from Elizabeth’s house.

Walking inside, we realized that Elizabeth’s ‘list’ contained enough items that we would need a grocery cart. I looked over at Ellie and said, “I can’t believe we are grocery shopping for The Nut Lady!” We split up and divvied the list to shop more efficiently and were done and back at her home in less than one-half hour. 

Elizabeth looked very pleased to see us (and her ice cream!). She offered us the change from her $100, about $65. We refused. Really. The pleasure was all ours. I went from being cranky and depressed to having one of the best experiences of my life. And, despite my account, there IS no way to adequately describe Elizabeth, her Museum OR the amazing adventure we three had on that one October day in 1998. It’s been 11 years and we still talk and laugh about it as though it was yesterday. And, other family members, who’d chosen not to or weren’t able to go have rued that decision ever since. 

Sadly, Elizabeth died, I read, in 2007 at the ripe age of 94. A few years before, she’d been forced into a skilled nursing facility in nearby Old Saybrook where she lived out her last years, undoubtedly singing to the staff all the way to the end. 

“Nuts to youuuuu,” Elizabeth; Godspeed to you.

Elizabeth Tashjian is featured on the “Best of Carson” available on DVD. The segments included were all hand-selected by Carson as some of his favorite moments on his shows over the years. Elizabeth Tashjian's Website

© 2009, Ryb Katz, all rights reserved